As CEO, Phil Brown leads the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) and Orlando International Airport (MCO), which serves 50.6 million passengers annually as the busiest airport in Florida and the 10th-busiest in the United States. Brown has been guiding the airport through the decline of passenger traffic wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the beginning of a resurgence in travel. He is also leading a $3.8 billion capital improvement project at the airport that features the $2.7 billion South Terminal Complex, which will add 15 gates for domestic and international flights. When Brightline begins its rail service at Orlando International by 2023, the airport will become the first in the nation served by intercity rail, providing seamless integration of air, ground and rail transportation. On April 21, during a GOAA meeting, Brown announced his intention to retire soon. His contract expires at the end of September, but he said he is willing to stay longer if needed to allow for the search, hiring and transition of his successor. He has been with the airport since 2008, when he was hired as the authority’s deputy executive director for administration.
What did you want to be growing up, and why?
I wanted to be a cowboy from age 5 until about 9. My favorite cowboy star was Roy Rogers. Then my father moved our family from the Memphis area to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where no one cared about cowboys, so I lost interest in the notion.
How old were you when you took your first plane ride? Where did you go, with whom, and what did you think of air travel? How has it changed?
My first airplane flight was in the summer of 1959, when I was 9, and my family moved to the Washington, D.C., area. We flew from Nashville to the old National Airport terminal in Washington. We were all dressed up in our Sunday clothes, and my eyes were bugged out the whole time. We were served a meal on china with cloth napkins. I have always considered that a privilege. The trip was part of my father’s relocation benefits or we never could have afforded to fly.
Since then, air travel has transformed from a regulated industry with rates and routes determined by a Civil Aeronautics Board to a market-driven, competitive service that many consider a right instead of a privilege.
How is the work going at the airport’s new South Terminal Complex, when is it expected to open and why was it needed?
Construction of the new South Terminal Complex is progressing on schedule and is more than 70% completed. Work on the facility’s exterior is nearly done, with most of the focus now on the interior. We expect construction to be substantially completed by early 2022.
Following our development philosophy of building to meet demand, the decision to begin construction of the South Terminal was made by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Board in 2016. Projections at the time showed that continual increases in passenger activity in the coming years would eventually max out the capacity in the North Terminal and affect our ability to deliver optimal customer service. This was borne out when we set a record with more than 50 million annual passengers in 2019.
Although the return to that volume of traffic will be slow post-pandemic, we know that as one of the community’s key economic drivers, Orlando International Airport will need to be prepared to support the region’s tourism and business sectors when traffic rebounds. The South Terminal Complex and its associated apron/taxiways will encompass about 300 acres, with the total building program comprising 2.7 million square feet. The new facility is designed to accommodate up to 10 million passengers a year.
How will the new terminal be different from the current North Terminal Complex?
Where the North Terminal uses an automated people mover system to transport travelers from the landside terminal to the remote airside terminals where the gates are located, the South Terminal will feature a more traditional design of a landside and airside linked by walkways.
Another difference will be the experience for arriving passengers. At the South Terminal, passengers will arrive and retrieve their bags on the top (third) level of the terminal. Its extensive windows and skylights will immediately connect visitors to the natural light, foliage and beauty of Central Florida. Departures, ticketing and security will be on the second level, with ground transportation on the first level.
The South Terminal also will feature a bag storage system allowing early arriving passengers to store their bags before they depart. The terminal will employ a robotic retrieval system and have capacity for more than 1,800 bags.